In a move anticipated for weeks, the Ravens have officially placed the franchise tag on Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon, which prevents other teams from pursuing him in free agency.
The question now becomes whether the 27-year-old will indeed remain with the Ravens if the sides are unable to strike a long-term agreement. General manager Eric DeCosta could attempt to trade him to another team — the tag-and-trade has become more popular in recent years — or Judon could balk at the reality of playing on the projected $16.3 million tag for the 2020 season. This is the first time DeCosta has used the tag since taking over for former general manager Ozzie Newsome last offseason.
“If [the tag is] what we have to do, then we’ll probably have to do it,” DeCosta said at the scouting combine in Indianapolis last month. “But there’s other options as well on the table — long-term deal being something that we would love to get accomplished. We’ll have to see how it all kind of works out.”
Another point of contention could be the Ravens designating Judon as a linebacker instead of as a defensive end, a move that saves the organization roughly $3 million. According to ESPN’s Field Yates, Judon played 36 snaps as a standup linebacker and 619 snaps as an edge defender, creating shades of gray the Ravens also encountered when using the tag on rush linebacker Terrell Suggs more than a decade ago. According to Pro Football Focus, the 6-foot-3, 261-pound Judon played 450 pass-rush snaps, 274 run snaps, and 113 coverage snaps last season.
Earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl last season, Judon led the Ravens in sacks (9 1/2), tackles for loss (14), and forced fumbles (four) while also posting 54 total tackles in 16 starts last season. The 2016 fifth-round pick has collected a team-high 24 1/2 sacks over the last three seasons and becomes the seventh player in team history to receive the franchise tag.
— Matthew Judon (@man_dammn) March 13, 2020
It’s no secret the Ravens are trying to improve a pass rush that ranked 21st in the NFL with 37 sacks last season despite blitzing a league-high 54.9 percent on dropbacks, according to Pro-Football Reference. Judon’s 33 quarterback hits ranked fourth in the league, but PFF classified 35 of his career-best 62 total pressures as unblocked or cleanup situations, leading some to debate whether Judon is an indispensable part of Baltimore’s pass rush or more of a product of Wink Martindale’s blitz-heavy schemes.
After losing Za’Darius Smith and Suggs in free agency last year, the Ravens couldn’t afford to let Judon depart for only a compensatory pick in next year’s draft. The tag eats up roughly 44 percent of Baltimore’s estimated $37 million in salary cap space, but 2019 third-round pick Jaylon Ferguson and 2017 second-round pick Tyus Bowser were the only outside linebackers under team control for 2020 to have played snaps last season.
If history is any indication, Judon could be in Baltimore for the long haul as all but one of the previous six Ravens players to receive the franchise tag eventually signed a long-term contract. Offensive lineman Wally Williams signed with New Orleans after playing with the tag in 1998, but cornerback Chris McAlister (2003-04), Suggs (2008-09), defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (2011), running back Ray Rice (2012), and kicker Justin Tucker (2016) all reached long-term agreements to stay with the Ravens.
“Ultimately, that’s a decision that comes from them and me,” Judon said after the playoff loss to Tennessee in January. “We have to sit down and talk about some things and my agent. We have to see, but for the last four years and this whole year, I couldn’t ask for anything else.”
The Grand Valley State product has never missed a game due to injury in his four-year career, collecting 28 1/2 sacks, seven forced fumbles, seven pass breakups, and 185 tackles in 62 games, 36 of those being starts.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic that’s brought the sports world to a screeching halt, the Ravens issued the following statement on the status of their Owings Mills training facility and offseason activities:
“Public health and safety have always been top priorities for the Ravens. Due to the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation, effective today, virtually all team personnel will work remotely for a minimum of two weeks. All air business travel has been suspended. We will continue to evaluate this developing situation and adjust as circumstances warrant.”
The NFL still plans to open the new league year and free agency next week.